Stephen Pollard: Not every composer is worthy of a centenary

Entire seasons have been themed around their work, irrespective of the compositions' worth
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If Tony Hatch, the composer of the theme music to Crossroads, Mr & Mrs and Neighbours, as well as a string of pop classics such as Downtown and Don't Sleep in the Subway, wants to be celebrated as a musical genius, he needs to wait only another 34 years.

Tony Hatch was born in 1939, and so 2039 will mark the centenary of his birth. Of their type, his compositions are outstanding. He is regarded by his peers as the doyen of TV theme music writers. Whatever their merits, however, I doubt that even Mr Hatch would consider the introductory tunes to a hilariously inept soap opera, a cringe-making quiz and an Australian teen drama to be high art. Tony Hatch is a hack composer, albeit an extremely gifted master of his hack craft.

To judge, however, from some concerts to be performed this year, if he makes it through to his one hundredth birthday, Tony Hatch will be hailed as a musical icon, a genius of composition and an unfairly neglected master of his craft.

This year is the centenary of the birth of Michael Tippett and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Both were gifted composers, one British, one German. Both composed some pieces which repay repeated listening. But both also composed a string of pieces which had already outlived their worth on first hearing. None of that matters, however, since the simple fact of their centenary appears of itself to have attached an undue reverence to their name.

Programme planners, devoid of imagination, have latched on - as they do every year - to this year's anniversaries and themed entire seasons around their work, irrespective of the worth of their compositions.

It is unfashionable to make judgements about the relative - and absolute - merit of composers. (The same is, of course, also true of other artists.) Plainly, almost all strive to give of their best. They can endure anguish as they go through the process of composition. Perhaps it is the simple generosity of the human spirit which prevents us writing off the result as barely worth bothering with, let alone dismissing the produce of an entire life as a waste of time.

But really, life is too short to have to hear for a second time the likes of Hartmann's First String Quartet, Carillon, or any of his eight symphonies. They are perfectly passable pieces of music, but have no greater artistic worth than Tony Hatch's Don't Sleep in the Subway - considerably less, I would argue, since unlike Mr Hatch's compositions, they do not even come close to meeting the aspirations of their listeners (or even of their composer).

Their centenary does, however, give Hartmann and Tippett a claim on public attention this year, however spurious. What, though, can possibly explain the 11-concert festival beginning next month on the South Bank in London, "A Generous Spirit: Mendelssohn the Musician"?

One concert extends - I can barely write these next words without falling asleep - over an entire day, consisting of "leading Mendelssohn experts" who will be "exploring Mendelssohn, his family and social background and the breadth of his contribution to music".

I can't wait. Mendelssohn did indeed make one valuable contribution - promoting someone else's music. In 1829, he conducted a famous performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion (albeit in his own butchered version) which revived interest in the music of a real genius. But as for Mendelssohn's own music: in the pantheon of the world's most overrated artists, Felix Mendelssohn, the very archetype of the hack composer, stands at the summit.

As a precocious child, he composed his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream; it was pretty much downhill all the way after that. The British have a particular affection for him because he travelled to Scotland and London and composed an overture entitled The Hebrides. Dull and hackneyed it may be, but our 19th-century musical wasteland meant that we were flattered by the attention he gave us, and the piece has remained popular ever since.

Mendelssohn's great achievement was to compose a series of middle-brow pieces - above all, his Violin Concerto, his Octet and his oratorio Elijah - which do precisely what compositions by the likes of Tony Hatch, Richard Carpenter and Burt Bacharach manage: give the listener an easy fix.

All such pieces have their place. But when was the last time you heard about an 11-concert festival devoted to exploring the works of Burt Bacharach? The now 76-year-old Mr Bacharach has a far more extensive oeuvre than Felix Mendelssohn, who died at 38. His pieces are more concise, more finely crafted and more complex than Mendelssohn's hackwork.

The problem is not that there is anything wrong in the lack of a serious retrospective of either Tony Hatch or Burt Bacharach. Light music is light music, whatever the level of skill in its composition. The problems is that far more frivolous composers, with far less skill, are accorded unmerited stature by dint only of having lived a long time ago, or written in a genre - classical music - which lends itself to pretension and unmerited acclamation.

mail@stephenpollard.net

Comments